by Will Davis
There was a time when the mPower SMR (Small Modular Reactor) was the perceived industry leader. The consortium behind it won the first Department of Energy (DOE) funding award to move such a design through to licensing at the end of 2012, and it was planned that a two-reactor Generation mPower nuclear plant would be licensed and constructed at the TVA Clinch River site. Now, just over four years later, the effort – which has been through a fairly recent restructuring – has been ended by its participants.
The mPower consortium has decided to “shelve” the entire mPower project. According to BWXT spokesman Jud Simmons, this means archiving the established data and walking away from further present action on the project.
After the DOE award, developments over the years through 2014 appeared positive. That is when it became clear that the project might not meet the early expectations. At that time, BWXT (then still Babcock & Wilcox) announced that it was going to step back from the mPower SMR program. BWXT was unsuccessful in finding other investors willing to buy into the project. The goal was to get the B&W ownership down from its then 90% level. In November 2013, the company announced it was seeking investors in order to sell its share down to 20%, but all attempts failed. Additionally, B&W President Jim Ferland said (during the company’s 4th Quarter 2014 investor call) that the company already had losses on the mPower project totaling “about $400 million.” He stated that “about another $650 million” would be required to get through to construction. According to Ferland, the company announced that it would essentially park the project and cut the projected expenditure to under $70 million.
At the time of that announcement, the DOE reduced its funding amount to B&W. The DOE finally halted payments to B&W at the end of 2014.
In March 2016, a surprising announcement was made. Bechtel Corporation would take the project lead on the mPower program, and gave itself one year to explore options of outside investors and future potential customers. If at the end of that time frame no adequate investors or customers were found, the program would terminate. Unfortunately, the project terminated.
In an email to this writer on March 15, Jud Simmons of BWXT wrote that “on March 3, 2017, Bechtel notified BWXT that it was unable to secure sufficient funding to continue the Generation mPower program and that it was invoking the settlement scenario provisions of the framework agreement to terminate the program.” Simmons wrote that under the termination clause of the agreement BWXT will pay to Bechtel a $30 million settlement which in legal language “is Bechtel’s sole and exclusive remedy.” The monies for this payment have already been recognized in BWXT’s financial statement made a year ago, on March 31, 2016 at the time the new arrangement with Bechtel in the lead took effect.
Simmons adds “Over the last several years, both BWXT and Bechtel have worked very hard to attract additional investor interest in the mPower program. We are disappointed that additional interest has not materialized, but BWXT will move forward in other areas where our unique expertise matches our current and potential customers’ needs.”
During the email exchange, Simmons brought in Fred deSousa of Bechtel Corporation who added these words on Bechtel’s behalf: “We continue to believe in the potential of the mPower technology and the SMR concept overall. SMR’s deserve to play a key role in generating low-carbon electricity for the U.S. and the world. However, bringing a new reactor program through the design, engineering and regulatory process is a very complex and expensive proposition. It needed a plant owner with an identified location and an investor willing to wait a significant period of time for a return, and these were not available.” deSousa added that “in the search for investors, we met with government and private parties in the U.S. and abroad.”
Simmons of BWXT echoed Bechtel’s sentiments about the mPower concept, writing that “BWXT believes in its SMR technology and is proud of its development efforts to date. We will keep a complete archive of our work to date, and should conditions warrant in the future, BWXT will be in a position to evaluate any opportunities for design and manufacture using that technology, as guided by our senior leadership and Board of Directors.”
So, perhaps it’s safe, even if overly hopeful, to say that the mPower SMR is not dead. But it is not alive either, as all work on its development, licensing and deployment will end with these decisions. Like many other designs throughout history, it will remain for now in a stasis – a suspended animation – as it awaits a call from the future.
Will Davis is Communications Director and board member for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He is a consultant to the Global America Business Institute, a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and he writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves on the ANS Communications Committee and on the Book Publishing Committee. He is a former U.S. Navy reactor operator and served on SSBN-641, USS Simon Bolivar.